Writing Tasks and Classroom Diversity
What kinds of writing tasks do teachers in diverse classrooms assign to engage, inspire, and motivate students? Culturally and linguistically diverse students may need tasks specifically designed to enhance their learning, yet these writing tasks, for the most part, are applicable to any classroom setting. Research shows that diverse students benefit from writing activities that are inclusive; writing activities that build on what they already know, and writing activities that draw out the student.
In Julie Landsman’s article “When Truth and Joy are at Stake” in White Teacher/Diverse Classrooms (2006) she notes the importance of hearing all the students voices. She states that “the more we build in time for students to read aloud their own words, their own responses, the more our curriculum becomes inclusive and multicultural” (225). Having all the students read aloud their writing helps assure students that their participation is important. Landsman gives the following examples of exercises to get students writing quickly and reading aloud their work. To prepare students for the compare and contrast essay “have students write quickly for 10 minutes comparing a morning to an evening, a color to a sound, or any other two concepts. Next have them read aloud what they’ve written, going around the room without comment” (225). She also suggests that students ”make lists: I’d rather be a —–than a ——. or, I used to be ——, but now I am——. By having students write automatically, we refuse to let them become blocked. By listening to them read, we refuse to silence them” (225). These tasks are quick and easy no pressure tasks, but they also prepare the students for more in-depth assignments such as the compare and contrast essay.
She also talks about the importance of allowing the use of dialect “while exposing students to the language they will need to compete in a world of “standard English” (226). She points out that students “flip from Ebonics to street slang to standardized English. . . . By asking students to translate their work you are putting a name on what they do. . . . By talking about registers of language, from intimate to formal, students begin to see their own linguistic variety and the way this fits into an organized pattern of understanding” (225). For tasks she suggests translating “Shakespeare into Ebonics or translating Ebonics from music lyrics into standard English” (225). Landman points out that these kinds of tasks build on their strengths.
One other writing task she offers is from a teacher named George Roberts from an inner-city Minneapolis high school. This activity would be great for any high school ELA classroom. His idea is to let each student “pick a day to be in charge of typing up lyrics to a song that was meaningful to him or her also writing a paragraph about why this song was important. Play the song and let the class discuss it, structuring that discussion by throwing a Koosh ball toward the person who brought in the song and letting him of her begin the exchange, passing the Koosh to the next person who wished to talk” (229). Have the students address the following questions: “What is the tone of the song? What is the theme? What about word choice? What happens in the song” (229)? He suggests using the same rubric when talking about literature. Activities like this one also builds on the student’s strengths. The learning here is additive.
I also looked at an article by several teachers in Breaking the Mold of Education for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students (2012). These teachers suggest that the finding out who our students are is critical. In assessing the needs of one of their students who was struggling the teachers state: “We believed his struggles to find success with our writing activities were in part the result of our failure to really recognize who he was” (207). The project they found most helpful was one involving students taking photographs with a particular theme in mind. They gave students cameras to take pictures . . . . with the purpose of answering three questions: “What are the purposes of school? What helps you to succeed in school? What gets in the way of your school success” (210). Then they reviewed the photographs with students in one-on-one and small group settings as part of an “elicitation process” noting that “we transcribed their oral reactions and helped them to edit their reflection on the photos that they felt best answered the project questions” (210). They stress “ the importance of one-to-one writing conferences, of using visual tools to move past young adults’ negative writer identities, and of explicitly working to make academic task into personal ones” (210). In conducting their conferences they set up the following outline: “The first conference focuses on the images the student have taken. They have students write a paragraph reflection on two or three different images focused on the project questions. . . . The second conference concentrates on the draft paragraphs having students read aloud their work . . . . The final conference focuses on the revisions the students have made to their piece of writing and its accompanying image” (212). Although this task is more involved than any task suggested, it is an opportunity to get to know the student as well as work through the writing process with the student who may be struggling.
Working with diverse students who may not participate in classroom discussions may require teachers to assign brief writing tasks that they can read aloud without pressure. Reading writing responses aloud and requiring all students to participate assures that all students are heard. One of the best ways to get students writing is to have them write on what they know. If we believe that learning as an additive process, then we build on the knowledge they already possess. Acknowledging dialect and allowing students to discuss and write on the use of dialect builds on their strengths. Recognizing our students for who they really are can help us understand their perspective, facilitate discussion, and generate writing.
Landsman, Julie and Chance W. Lewis. eds. White Teachers/Diverse Classrooms: A Guide to Building Inclusive Schools, Promoting High Expectations, and Eliminating Racism. Virginia: Stylus Publishing, 2006. Print.
Honingfeld, Andrea and Audrey Cohan, eds. Breaking the Mold of Education for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012. Print.